MIAMI (AP) — Today, South Florida airboat owners like Keith Price, Don Onstad and Charlie Erwin range freely throughout the East Everglades in their roaring, slough-skimming craft as they have for decades.
They buzz through the sawgrass to a lone pond apple tree they call the "Christmas Tree" — a makeshift memorial decorated with stuffed animals and topped by an American flag where several of their departed friends' ashes have been scattered by propeller wash. They hunt for artifacts on tree islands like the Duck Club — named for a ramshackle cabin built in the 1950s that's reputed to have hosted former President Dwight Eisenhower for duck hunting and card playing. They rescue stranded airboaters, escort Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops on slough slogs and pick up countless party balloons that float in from town.
"We are the protectors of the Everglades," Erwin said.
But maybe not for much longer. The three Gladesmen — all longtime members of the airboat Association of Florida ranging in age from 60 to 72 — will be among the last private airboaters to operate in the vast marsh south of Tamiami Trail if officials at Everglades National Park get their way.
The park's proposed general management plan for the next 15 to 20 years calls for an end to all private airboating in the East Everglades once the "grandfathers" who operate there now have died. The region was added to the national park in 1989, and whoever can prove he or she had a registered airboat in Miami-Dade County back then could obtain a non-transferrable, non-renewable permit to operate on designated trails only for the remainder of their lives. Park officials estimate 1,000 to 2,000 airboaters would be affected.
As for longtime commercial airboat tour operators along the Trail — Coopertown, Everglades Safari Park, and Gator Park — the park proposes to buy their properties, turn them into concessionaires and confine their operations to a "front country zone" of about 10,000 to 11,000 acres just south of the Trail. If the park's preferred plan is adopted sometime next year, then the rest of the East Everglades — more than 80,000 acres — would be designated as wilderness with no mechanical propulsion — even bicycles — allowed.
Park planner Fred Herling says the aim is to strike a balance between the desires of airboaters and other visitors such as paddlers and hikers.
"We acknowledge private airboating and commercial airboating is an important way for people to experience the Everglades," Herling said. "And there are people who want to experience it in a more wilderness way."
But long-timers such as Price, Erwin and Onstad argue that the region hasn't truly been a wilderness for a very long time, that it has been hunted, fished, frogged and farmed for centuries starting with Native Americans and culminating with the Gladesmen, whose culture has evolved over the past 100 years.